By Linda Rex
December 13, 2020, ADVENT | JOY—As I was sitting and writing this blog today, I couldn’t help but gaze through the window at the dark, gloomy sky. The cold, damp grayness of this winter day is a good picture of what so many are experiencing right now in the midst of the pandemic and election limbo. Many of us have experienced 2020 as a year which brought us to the brink of disaster, and for some—tipped us on over into a pit of darkness, depression, and even despair.
Even as we wonder how much deeper we will go into this pit before things get better, we find ourselves moving on into Advent. We’ve celebrated hope and peace, and now we come upon a Sunday when we ponder the miracle of joy. How can one possibly feel any joy in the middle of all we are going through? How can God expect us to find joy when everything we are facing gives us anything but joy?
The spiritual gift of joy is something which isn’t based upon our circumstances. That feeling of happiness or gladness which is induced by positive, enjoyable circumstances and experiences is not the same as the joy that is spoken of by the apostle Paul. When he says to us, “Rejoice always,” it’s not because he is insane or unfeeling. It is because joy’s roots go much deeper than the everyday situations of life. It is God’s will that we always rejoice—he wants us to have a deeper inner joy which will carry us through the most difficult times of our lives, enabling us to bear up under unbearable struggles and losses.
One of the scriptures for this Sunday is Psalm 126. In verses 5 and 6, the psalmist says, “Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. | He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, | Shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (NASB). Here we have a picture of a farmer who is weeping while he is spreading seed on the ground in the spring; but when the wheat is harvested, he shouts with the joy of it all.
Understand that the road Jesus, the Son of God, took for our salvation took him through death to resurrection. He was the Seed promised to Adam and Eve and then to Abraham as a solution for the evil, sin, and death we brought into this world. He was buried in the grave like a seed, but when he rose, like a fruit-bearing wheat stalk from the ground, he brought all humanity forth into new life. The author of Hebrews said that “Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2 NASB). Notice that Jesus endured all of the suffering of the cross “for the joy set before Him.” In Christ, God is harvesting many souls—something that brings him great joy even though it cost him a great deal in the suffering and death of his Son.
Jesus described his mission as the One anointed by the Holy Spirit using the prophetic word of Isaiah 61:1–2a: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, | Because the LORD has anointed me | To bring good news to the afflicted; | He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, | To proclaim liberty to captives | And freedom to prisoners; | To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD…” (Lk. 4:18-19 NASB) This passage in Isaiah goes on to describe the work of the Messiah in bringing about redemption to his creation. The purpose of the Word, the Son of God, coming into our humanity that we celebrate at Christmastime is to bring humanity out of the deep dark hole of evil, sin, and death in which we placed ourselves. Jesus, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, brings all of us as we trust in him into a new place where we find healing, hope, freedom, and transformation.
In verse 10, Isaiah goes on to say, “I will rejoice greatly in the LORD, | My soul will exult in my God; | For He has clothed me with garments of salvation, | He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, | As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, | And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (NASB). What Isaiah was describing was the day when God in Christ would do for us what we could not do—save us, bring us into right relationship with himself and one another.
This is why the apostle Paul so often uses the language of taking of old garments and putting on new clothing when speaking of the new life we have in Christ. God has already done for you and me all that is needed for our healing and renewal in giving us his Son for our salvation and sending his Spirit for our regeneration. Now we simply, by the Spirit, have to put on Christ the way in which a couple gets dressed up in a tux and gown for a wedding. We turn away from ourselves and our own way to doing things and our own ability to save ourselves, and we turn to Jesus Christ in faith.
This is why it is possible to rejoice in the midst of difficult and painful times. There is an underlying assurance that no matter what may happen, we are held. Christ has come, he is present by the Spirit, and he will come again, to do what only he can do in our situation. However bad it may get, we have the assurance that Christ is present with us and is standing in our place willing to do whatever is needed to carry us through to the other side. We simply need to trust him and continue to pray, to give thanks and to rejoice.
There is a story which children are often taught in Sunday school which comes to my mind in regards to this. It is the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. These three young Jewish men had been chosen to serve the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar while Judah was exiled to his kingdom. One day some of the Chaldeans told the king that these men refused to bow to the new idol the king had set up and they deserved to be thrown into the furnace. Now the king liked these men and he tried to talk them into simply bowing down to the idol so they wouldn’t die. Well, they chose not to, telling the king that God would save them, and even if God didn’t save them, they would still not bow the knee to another God but the God of Israel.
What captures my attention so often in this story is that God didn’t keep the men from being thrown in the fire. In fact, the king made the fire in the furnace seven times hotter before having them thrown in. And the fire was so hot that the people throwing in the men died. This is when the story becomes supernatural—when the king looked into the flames, he saw four men walking around, the three who had been tied up and thrown in, and another who looked like “a son of the gods.” The king finally called all of them to come out of the furnace. The three men did and there was no evidence on their bodies that they had ever been in the flames.
I hope you are grasping the point I am trying to make. We have to place our faith beyond our own ability to help ourselves and the ability of others or our government to help us, and to simply place our faith in the God who has done everything in Christ by the Spirit which is needed for us to be saved. This is the God who came into the flames of our human existence to walk and talk with us, and to bring us out with him into new life. Our joy in the midst of our struggles, suffering, and loss is based in the reality that God will bring us out of them to the other side, and that even if he doesn’t rescue us, he will be with us as we go through whatever may be required of us. We are not alone—he is Immanuel, “God with us” now and forever.
This is our hope, our peace, and it is also our joy. Whatever may happen, we are not alone. God is with us, working things out for our best and caring for us no matter how intense the flames of trial and struggle we are experiencing may get. God in Christ holds us. We trust in him, allowing his Spirit to dwell richly in our hearts, giving us the assurance that he is near, providing the guidance and direction we need, and reminding us of his promise of life eternal when this life is over.
Our ability to “rejoice always” is found in Christ’s joy, in his personal presence in us and with us by the Spirit, as we go through every circumstance of life. As we keep our eyes on the heavenly realities, on Jesus Christ, the Son of God, walking with us in the flames, we will be filled with an unexplainable joy that is grounded in the presence and person of God himself.
Holy Father, thank you for holding us in the midst of all our struggles and suffering. Thank you, Jesus, for being ever present by your Spirit and for filling our hearts with your joy. Enable us to rejoice always, remain constant in prayer, and be grateful in every circumstance, as we trust in you now and forever. In your name, we pray, amen.
“Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil. Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16–24 NASB
By Linda Rex
I was reading some short quips from a book called “Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations” when I came upon the following:
Until recently, most astronomers believed that our sun could maintain its present heat-energy output for at least another eight million years, because its hydrogen supply is only about half exhausted.
More recently, however, this theory has been reappraised. It is now believed that once a star (our sun, by the way, is just a medium-sized star) has expended half of its hydrogen, it is in danger of experiencing a nova. This means that a star the size of our sun gets brighter and hotter for a period of about 7 to 14 days—then becomes darker.
There are about fourteen novas a year in the observable universe. Many astronomers believe that our own sun may be about to nova because of the increased sun-spot activity. (1)
This kind of statement usually peaks my interest, but this time, since it was not written by a scientist nor was it found in a scientific journal, I had to seriously investigate its truthfulness before I took it seriously. In fact, statements like these than can provide fuel for the fire for those of us who like to make apocalyptic warnings and prophecies.
For example, if I were to read something like the above quote, and then read 2 Peter 3:10-12, I might develop some real concerns about the end of the world coming soon and what it will be like:
10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. 11 Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, 12 looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! (NASB)
Wow, it sounds on the surface that the world could really end in a flaming ball of fire at any moment! Here’s where we start preaching hail, fire and brimstone. Get your act together now or you’re going to end up in the burning flames.
Reading through the titles of so many articles on the Web also brings to mind other types of “end of the world” scenarios or other forms of possible disaster: everyday foods that create cancer, a mysterious disease causing paralysis in children, women in India being poisoned by medicine—the list goes on.
The common thread here, I believe is fear. Fear is the one thing that keeps us from seeing, hearing and believing the God of the universe loves us and holds us in his hand. Fear grabs hold of us and blinds us to the truth that we are surrounded with and held in God’s love. It is God’s perfect love which casts out our fear and removes the torment that comes when we feel we have to hold everything together ourselves.
It is worth pausing a moment to ask ourselves exactly how much it would matter in the long run if everything ended now. What if I did accidently take a medicine that ended up killing me? What if my next medical checkup does show I have cancer? What if the sun really were to go supernova tomorrow? Is there reason for panic?
None of us are really truly prepared for the thief in the night, though some of us may have a watchdog and others of us have an alarm system. The thief in the night comes when he comes, and probably when we least expect him and most definitely do not want him. But if we are alert and prepared, it won’t be as much of a catastrophe as it would be if we were totally clueless.
I believe the issue here is realizing just who we are and who we belong to. Since we are loved by a gracious, long-suffering God who came himself in his Son Jesus Christ to rescue us, we really don’t have anything to fear. We have our early warning system in the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. We are God’s children, children of the light not children of the darkness, and he is looking after us.
When we live moment by moment in close relationship with God, we know and recognize the signs of the times. We are guided by and led by the Holy Spirit. We know and obediently respond to Jesus as he calls to us to follow and to obey.
Then we, as children of light and not darkness, will not be overwhelmed by anything that comes our way. Rather, we are prepared and aware and will respond in accordance with God’s will for us before and in the midst of each situation in which we may find ourselves.
It won’t matter then whether or not the sun picks tonight to be the moment it decides to go supernova. If we get the medical report that signs our death warrant, we will be able to face it headfirst, in faith. We will trust that in the midst of it all, God is holding us and will bring us through to that glorious day when we will meet him face to face, and it will all be okay.
As we live and walk in the light of God’s Word and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we soberly approach our future with faith, hope and love. We are alert to the things in our lives that may distract our attention from the one Being who has, at every moment, our best interests at heart. We’ll be able to weather every storm that comes because we are anchored in Christ, in our eternal relationship with the Father, through Jesus and in the Holy Spirit.
So bye-bye to all these apocalyptic worries. We focus on Christ, not on the headlines. We focus on living in love and grace with others the way God lives in love and grace with us. We weather the storms of life in Christ, carried by his faith, hope and love. And all is and will be well.
Thank you Father, that we have nothing to fear. Though the stars may fall, our sun may explode and our world fall apart or burn up in flames, we are held close in your hand. Nothing but love fills your heart for us. You want us to be with you always. Grant us the grace each day and each moment to trust in your perfect love for us that you have shown to us in Jesus, and by and in the gift of your Spirit. Give us the grace to believe and to trust you in every circumstance we face, that you will bring us through. Through Jesus, our Lord and Savior, we pray. Amen.
“But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober.” 1 Thess. 5:4–6
(1) Tan, P. L. (1996). Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times (p. 740). Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc.
By Linda Rex
This morning I was reading about an enormous fire in the state of Idaho at Sun Valley. This wildfire is threatening many homes in the mountain resort community, causing many to flee as firefighters attempt to contain the massive blaze.
I was reminded that as a child I used to have nightmares about being caught in one of the wildfires that often frequented the southern California foothills near where I grew up. A fire such as this would burn through the hills above us at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, often burning homes that were in its path. Sometimes the Santa Anita Winds would feed the fire, multiplying the damage it created to catastrophic proportions.
As a child, the loss to fire of all that I knew—home, family, belongings—was a frightening prospect. The only thing that eased the horror of such a prospect was my fledgling faith in a God who would take care of us. Otherwise, it was a concept that for me meant the end of the world as we know it. Having heard that one day the world would end in conflagration, I was rather frightened by the prospect of such a terrifying end.
So why did Jesus say that he came “to set fire to the world, and I wish it were already burning?” God himself is described as a consuming fire. Many scriptures point to the day when all that is evil will be consumed in the fire of God’s wrath. Is God such a wrathful, angry God that he looks forward to burning everything and everyone up?
Not only did Jesus say that he came to set the world on fire. He also said that he had a baptism he had to undergo and he was constrained or bound to complete it before the world could be set ablaze. The baptism he was facing was his own baptism by fire, the crucifixion. Jesus knew that when the time was right he would be unjustly accused and executed like a criminal by the leaders of his own people. In this event, as the One who is fully God and fully man, he would take upon himself all that every human being had ever done or would do that was deserving of death and bear our punishment in our place. He was working diligently every moment toward that end, to complete his commitment to all of humanity to save them from their sins. What drove Jesus to do this was the love of God for all the people he had created to bear his image. God’s great love bore the full extent of God’s wrath upon himself in our place. In Christ, God burned away all our sin, self and evil, not only by his sinless life, but also by his suffering, death and resurrection.
Sometimes a fire reaches a point of such intensity that it cannot be put out, but must be left to burn itself out. A firestorm is a fire out of control. We know that fire consumes all that is burnable in its path. It requires both flammable substances and oxygen in order to burn. Water or other substances that cut off its access to oxygen will snuff a fire out. The fire of God’s love is like a firestorm. It cannot be quenched—it is an unquenchable fire. We may do our best to attempt to quench the fire of God’s love. We may even turn away from and reject his love. But God’s fire will have its way, and will burn away all that mars the perfect image of him in each and every one of us.
After Jesus’ supreme sacrifice, the disciples gathered together to pray. They anticipated Jesus keeping a promise he had made to them—that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist had pointed his followers to Jesus, who would baptize with “the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Now Christ’s followers looked forward to Jesus doing exactly that. The Spirit, when given, was manifested as flames of fire, lighting on each of the believers. Through each of these people who received the Holy Spirit, God set the world ablaze with the fire of his love. And he still does this today.
As a person opens him or herself up to Jesus Christ and his Spirit, God goes to work in that person’s heart and life, and he begins to burn away all that is not in agreement with God’s nature, heart and life. As the flames of God’s love consume all that is not godly, a believer begins to change, from the inside out. It is a process, a journey that is life-long. No matter the ups and downs of life, God never stops working. The fire of his love never changes, though we may live and act in ways that attempt to quench it. When we trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ, when we keep our focus on him, each day sharing in his death and resurrection, dying to self and living to God, we are transformed from our natural glory into ever-increasing glory that reflects our divine Origin.
As believers grow up into Christ, they will begin to change. They will not think the way they used to. What interested them before will not always interest them, because their interests and thoughts will be governed by the Spirit of the God who made them, rather than by what their carnal nature may desire. They will grow up into the image of God they were created to be—they will begin to take on their true identity, being as they were meant to be. They will come fully alive. And the fire lit in their hearts and lives will begin to spread to those around them.
So we see in the book of Acts how the fire Jesus lit in the hearts of his followers began to spread throughout Judea, Samaria and then on into the areas beyond. And followers of Jesus can be found today in many nations throughout the world. Where his people have gone, the fire of God’s love has spread, and will continue to spread as they continue to participate in the life and love of Father, Son and Spirit they were created to share in.
The Love of God is an unquenchable love, an all-consuming fire, and will not cease to work to conform all humanity into the image of God in Christ. In the end, God’s love will destroy anything and everything that stands in opposition to him and that will bring harm to his children or destroy the image of himself his children were created to manifest. This is a conflagration we do not need to fear, as we are united to the God of Love in Christ by the Spirit. This firestorm is our salvation, hope and joy. Praise God!
We praise you, God, that you are an all-consuming Fire, a Fire of Love and Life. Thank you for uniting yourself with us in Jesus so that we need not fear the fire of your wrath, but rather can enjoy the heat and cleansing power of your love. We trust you to finish what you have begun in us to bring us to wholeness in Christ. We pray in his name. Amen.
“I came to set fire to the world, and I wish it were already burning!” Luke 12:49 (NCV)